For almost six years, Eastern Ukraine has known war. Locked in a seemingly unending cycle of conflict with separatist militias, Kiev’s battalions are battered and bruised – but still they fight on. A ceasefire was signed in 2015, but the breakaway forces, backed, it seems, by Russia, have continued their struggle. In total, some 13,000 have lost their lives. But now, after a period of relative calm, a fresh push for peace is being made.
This week, Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, will – for the first time – meet Vladimir Putin. Held in Paris, the talks will be mediated by France and Germany, and mark the first formal negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in over three years.
Elected in April, Zelensky stormed the polls with a promise to bring the fighting to an end. A former actor – known best for his portrayal of a fictional president – has worked to bridge the gap with Moscow. Prisoners have been swapped and seized ships returned – and he is said to speak regularly with Putin on the phone.
But for domestic critics, not least his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky is straying dangerously close to over-concession. In October, sporadic street protests erupted when he signed the so-called Steinmeier Formula – a plan for peace endorsed by Moscow. Under the agreement – which isn’t yet binding – Ukraine’s eastern territories would hold elections under Kiev-approved legislation, after which the region would return to Ukrainian control.
It sounds like an equitable piece of diplomacy, but for Zelensky’s opponents, assent to Steinmeier is a woeful capitulation. Emboldened by the Ukrainian man’s ‘peace at any price’ promise, Putin will likely view elections in the Donbass – the eastern provinces’ collective name – as a chance to reassert Moscow’s regional hegemony. At the polls, locals will back pro-Russian parties seeking autonomy from Kiev, the Kremlin believes.
With sympathetic rulers installed in the East, Putin will have a backdoor to Ukrainian foreign policy and lawmaking. Should the nation push for tighter NATO relations, for instance, the Donbass, under Moscow’s guidance, could invoke their veto. Coupled with the lifting of Western sanctions – a goodwill gesture for his commitment to peace – Putin’s Paris trip might be profitable indeed.
With the involvement of Ukraine’s French and German allies, however, Moscow should, in theory, be pressed to make their concessions. But in France’s Emmanuel Macron, Putin has a friendly ear. The talks’ host is an avowed advocate of closer Euro-Russian relations, going so far as to describe NATO, an alliance loathed by Moscow, as “brain dead”.
Worried by Russia’s apparent warmongering in Ukraine, Macron’s EU counterparts are wary of getting too close to the Moscow man – but if settlement is reached over the Donbass, the way would be clear for a tightening of bonds. Seeking lucrative bilateral trade and investment opportunities with Russia, this would suit Macron nicely.
A close friend of his, Germany’s Angela Merkel, views Putin with more suspicion – but she too has reason to push for a speedy Ukrainian settlement. The Nordstream 2 project, an off-shore gas pipeline linking Germany to Russia, is on the cusp of completion. Routing fuel directly to Europe via the Baltic Sea, the pipeline is bad news for Zelensky, whose country is currently used in transit. The loss of income would weaken Ukraine’s already vulnerable economy, say international critics urging Merkel to scrap the scheme. A peace agreement with Russia would buy Berlin time to see the construction completed, she hopes.
Harder to read is her American counterpart – the mercurial Mr Donald Trump. Zelensky launched a US-charm offensive this summer, desperate to win the president’s unwavering support. An official White House invite was the Ukrainian’s wish – a gesture that would’ve given many in Moscow pause for thought. But the offer never came. “I really hope you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem,” Trump said instead. His message was clear: Zelensky, you’re on your own.
In truth, it should have come as no surprise. Ukraine is dangerous political ground for the White House right now. Facing an impeachment investigation into his apparent threat to withhold military aid unless Kiev fulfils political objectives, Trump is wary of aligning too closely with Zelensky. The goal – an equitable peace deal on the Donbass – might be wholly right and proper, but the optics could play poorly in Washington.
And so Zelensky finds himself in an unenviable position. “Committed to seeking an end to the war in the Donbass, he is under strong pressure at home not to give in to Moscow’s bullying tactics,” said Bohdan Nahaylo of the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “At the same time, the Ukrainian leader will also have to watch his back and hope his country’s longtime allies remain reliable.”
Regardless of the challenges, the inexperienced statesman must prevail. The window for settlement won’t remain open for long – and failure could carry a terrible cost. Like in Israel and Cyprus, a ‘frozen conflict’ might emerge: a bitter, military impasse, defined in all likelihood by the building of walls. Just last week, a senior Zelensky aide to revealed plans for a fortified frontier if the talks falter. If there is a chance to avoid that fate, it must be taken.